One of the most vivid experiences of my time as a graduate student at Harvard was a seminar I took with the preeminent liberal political theorist John Rawls. The discussion centered on Rawls's later work, in which he divorced his liberalism from the claim of absolute truth. His argument was only cogent, he averred, if read and understood by people who already shared some basic premises--the need for consent, the reliance on reason, a tone of civility, a relatively open mind. With characteristic tactlessness, I asked him what his response would be if Hitler joined the debate and disagreed with him. Rawls answered that there could be no discourse with Hitler. We would have to agree that he was simply crazy, a madman at a Cambridge dinner party, a figure outside the conversation. To Hitler, Rawls had nothing to say, except please go away.
But what if Hitler refuses to go away? My mind has drifted back to that conversation recently, as we try to grapple with the reality staring us in the face: Something like Hitler is back, and it is waging war on the United States. Part of the current crisis is that many of us simply do not have a philosophy capable of countering him.
Is this a grotesque exaggeration? The argument ad Hitlerum is, after all, such a high-school debating tactic that it should be employed only with extreme caution. The reason I invoke it is not simply because we have an irrational, lethal movement stirring many people across the globe in a call to mass murder. But because one central element of that movement, which we are doing our best to ignore, but which is increasingly unignorable, is pathological anti-Semitism.
Yes, of course, the geopolitical differences between anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism in the Arab world are vast. Germany was the preeminent military power of its time; the Arab nations are decidedly not. Germany had a large, and largely defenseless, Jewish population within its borders and millions more on its doorstep; the Arab states have only Israel, which despite its tiny size is hardly defenseless. But ignoring a virulent ideology because we believe those who hold it to be weak is the kind of thinking that recently enabled the murder of 5,000 people in New York. So consider the following: According to a recent Newsweek poll, 48 percent of Pakistanis believe Jews were responsible for the World Trade Center bombing. A plurality of Egyptians agree.
This should come as no surprise. Vicious anti-Semitism is now the official doctrine of most Arab governments and their organs of propaganda. The official Palestinian Authority newspaper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, for example, regularly contains references to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the loopy nineteenth-century hoax that suggests Jews run the world. As one article put it (at the height of the Oslo peace process, no less): "It is important to conduct the conflict according to the foundations which both are leaning on... particularly the Jews... such as the Torah, the Talmud and the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion].... All signs unequivocally prove that the conflict between the Jews and the Muslims is an eternal on-going conflict, even if it stops for short intervals.... This conflict resembles the conflict between man and Satan.... This is the fate of the Muslim nation, and beyond that the fate of all the nations of the world, to be tormented by this nation [the Jews]. The fate of the Palestinian people is to struggle against the Jews on behalf of the Arab peoples, the Islamic peoples and the peoples of the entire world."
Here's a summary of a gem that appeared in Egypt's Al Ahram, the largest newspaper in that country: "A compilation of the `investigative' work of four reporters on Jewish control of the world states that Jews have become the political decision-makers and control the media in most capitals of the world (Washington, Paris, London, Berlin, Athens, Ankara) and says that the main apparatus for the Jews to control the world is the international Jewish lobby which works for Israel." It is worth noting here that every word Al Ahram prints is vetted and approved by the Egyptian government, a regime to which the United States--i.e., you and I--contributes $2 billion a year.
Or take Syria, a thugocracy, whose leader indulged in an anti-Semitic outburst in front of the pope, but a state that Colin Powell nonetheless wishes to bring into his grand coalition. In 1983 Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass wrote a book entitled The Matzah of Zion, claiming that Jews murder Arab children to knead their blood into matzahs for Passover. An article about the book that appeared in Al Ahram one year ago (and was noted by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute) concluded with the following sentences: "The bestial drive to knead Passover matzahs with the blood of non-Jews is [confirmed] in the records of the Palestinian police where there are many recorded cases of the bodies of Arab children who had disappeared being found, torn to pieces without a single drop of blood. The most reasonable explanation is that the blood was taken to be kneaded into the dough of extremist Jews to be used in matzahs to be devoured during Passover." If this is the "most reasonable explanation," can you imagine an unreasonable one? But it gets worse. The Matzah of Zion will soon be turned into a movie. According to memri, "the producer stated that the primary goal of the film is `to respond to all of the Zionist films distributed by the American film industry, which is backed by the Zionist propaganda apparatus. Among these films is Schindler's List, which supports the idea of the Jews' right to the land of Palestine.'" Schindler's List versus The Matzah of Zion: just a battle of ideas.
The sobering truth is that somewhere in my head, I knew all this already. It is not a revelation that large segments of the Arab world--at all levels of society--are not just anti-Israel, but fanatically anti-Semitic. Bernard Lewis wrote in 1986: "The demonization of Jews goes further than it had ever done in Western literature, with the exception of Germany during the period of Nazi rule. In most Western countries, anti-Semitic divagations on Jewish history, religion, and literature are more than offset by a great body of genuine scholarship... In modern Arabic writing there are few such countervailing elements." So why did I look the other way? Why did I discount this anti-Semitism on the grounds that these are alien cultures and we cannot fully understand them, or because these pathologies are allied with more legitimate (if to my mind unpersuasive) critiques of Israeli policy? I guess I was thinking like John Rawls. We in the West simply do not want to believe that this kind of hatred still exists; and when it emerges, we feel uncomfortable. We do everything we can to change the subject. Why the denial, I ask myself? What is it about this sickness that we do not understand by now? And what possible excuse do we have not to expose and confront it with all the might we have?
Andrew Sullivan is a contributing editor at The New Republic.